By Alexander Billet
Published in Znet
One has to admit; it's certainly a landmark. Yesterday, Rolling Stone announced that the world's 100 millionth iPod was sold. Up until a few years ago, the concept seemed little more than a fantasy, while massive chains like Tower Records kept their fingers crossed that it would stay that way.
Predictably, Apple guru Steve Jobs is being showered with a terabyte of praise as an innovator and icon. RS even compiled a clever faux-playlist of songs that Jobs is listening to on his own pod, including such tunes as Bowie's "The Man Who Sold the World," and NoFX's anti-record industry anthem "Dinosaurs Will Die." Ha ha.
But the question has to be asked; does Jobs deserve such praise? Is he a man who made our music more accessible? Or is he simply a man with undeniable savvy who figured out a way to keep the price tag on an evolving market? The answer to that question goes deep into the true nature of the music industry.
First, a flashback: a little less than a decade ago, the idea of an mp3 had record execs shaking in their Pradas. The minute Napster came to everyone’s attention, groups like the RIAA screamed bloody murder, claiming that downloading would take money from hardworking artists; a laughable notion coming from an industry that is only willing to pony up 15% of each album sale. What scared the stuffed suits the most was the idea that artists and fans might have a forum to share their work without the say-so of corporate greed.
This is where Jobs came in. IPod and iTunes were a perfect way to get ahead of the game. Rather than squashing the mp3, which would have been impossible anyway, Jobs merely found a way for the RIAA (and himself) to make a buck off of it.
But what about us, the ordinary consumer? Do we benefit from Jobs' scheme? A fifteen dollar iTunes gift card will buy the holder twelve or thirteen songs, which is about what they would get had they paid the same amount for the average pop CD. The savings are hardly earth-shattering.
Plus, this demarcation between "legal" and "illegal" downloading has provided cover for the RIAA to go after "piracy" like they have long wanted to. The latest word is that they have threatened legal action against universities that refuse to hand over lists of "pirates." Of course, the idea of an industry that prosecutes eleven year old girls for downloading "Happy Birthday" calling anyone else a pirate is bald-faced hypocrisy.
And then there is the iPod itself, which can cost anywhere from $150 to $400. For someone making seven dollars an hour, a swiftly growing section of the US workforce, this is far from an easy buy. The notion of “pay-then-download” being better for the consumer is nothing more than smoke and mirrors, dogs and ponies, and good ol' supply and demand.
This kind of cartoon logic doesn't just apply to the ordinary music fan, but to the manufacture of the iPod itself. Nine months ago, Apple was scrambling into damage control as it was revealed that the players are built in sweatshop conditions on the outskirts of Shanghai. Workers lived in cramped conditions, were paid about $50 a month, and in some cases were forbidden from seeing family members or friends. Of course, Apple denied any knowledge up and down, claiming that they were "committed to ensuring that working conditions in our supply chain are safe, workers are treated with respect and dignity, and manufacturing processes are environmentally responsible." But as this writer has said before on Dissident Voice, "we've heard this before. We've heard it from Disney, from Kathy Lee, and now from Apple. In the end it's the same song, different arrangement."
So while Jobs, along with cohort Bono, would like us to believe they care deeply about poverty in Africa with their high-profile RED campaign, it's worth keeping in mind that the money being used to launch that campaign is made on the backs of the very people RED is claiming to help. But by bandying about the image of Africans as helpless little savages in need of assistance from the kind white man, Jobs has managed to make himself look magnanimous for giving work to them in the first place. Kipling would be proud.
As rock critic Dave Marsh pointed out in a recent blog posting, "in Africa, and on broader social questions in general, I think there are other approaches. I think $10 to the World Social Forum organization (which held its last meeting in Kenya) would bring more benefit. To Africans. Poor ones."
So while 100 million iPods sold is an historic marking point in our musical era, the praise showered upon Jobs by his contemporaries leaves the picture a bit skewed to say the least. The music industry is a parasite; a blight on music itself and our very lives, stifling creativity and limiting possibilities for artist, fan and worker alike, all in the name of marketability. Jobs shouldn't be lauded for helping the parasite survive. He should be shamed.